Out of the blue: PM shows the Secretaries Board who’s boss

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday December 6, 2019

Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives for Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, December 5, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Just last week the Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott told journalists the Secretaries Board had been busy advising Scott Morrison on his response to the Thodey report.

Then why have the top mandarins been blindsided?

Yesterday’s huge restructure of the APS, which will cut 18 departments down to 14 and scrap five secretaries’ jobs, seemed to come out of the blue.

The message emanating from the Secretaries Board was that it was working closely together as a team, playing a key role in advising the Prime Minister on his response to the report from the APS Review, which he still hasn’t released publicly, and getting on with implementing public service reforms broadly in line with the report’s recommendations and the PM’s expectations.

But it seems Morrison had other plans. Communications and the Arts secretary Mike Mrdak told staff he wasn’t made aware of the changes until Wednesday afternoon. Human Services head Renée Leon also only found out on Wednesday.

As of February 1, Mrdak and Leon will finish up in their current roles, as will Agriculture secretary Daryl Quinlivan, Industry, Innovation and Science secretary Heather Smith, and Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business secretary Kerri Hartland, only two years after Hartland made it to the top in former PM Malcolm Turnbull’s extensive reshuffle.

Former APS secretary Andrew Metcalfe — who was sacked by Tony Abbott in 2013 — will lead the Department of Agriculture, which will take on policy related to Water and the Environment. Water officially moved to the Infrastructure portfolio on Thursday, but that move has been abruptly stopped.

None of the sacked secretaries attended yesterday’s end-of-year address by head of the APS and secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Philip Gaetjens. The Mandarin understands three were to attend but, after yesterday’s shocking news, all three decided to stay away. Among the duties of the secretary of PM&C is to advise and make recommendations to the PM on secretary appointments and terminations.

Mrdak informed his staff of the changes shortly before the announcement, and said he was only alerted to the news himself on Wednesday afternoon.

“Our department will cease to exist and our functions and responsibilities will be incorporated into a newly established Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities, Regional Development and Communications,” he wrote on Thursday.

“I was told of the government’s decision to abolish the department late yesterday afternoon. We were not permitted any opportunity to provide advice on the Machinery of Government changes, nor were our views ever sought on any proposal to abolish the department or to changes to our structure and operations. At this time I understand that all of our functions, responsibilities, staff and programmes will transfer into the new department.”

He said he would keep staff updated on further news, but the changes would see the end of his 32-year career in the public service.

“I will do my best with our SES (executive) team to ensure that there is as much certainty as possible for all of you, and our agencies, and a continuity of services for the community we serve.”

“This has been the most wonderful opportunity I could ever have imagined in my career.

“I will miss this department, all of you and the APS terribly.”

Leon’s message to her staff has also surfaced in news coverage of the overhaul.

“The Prime Minister announced some changes to the structure of the public service that will affect our department. The department will become an agency in the Social Services from February next year,” she wrote.

“I am sorry to say that this also means I will no longer be your secretary from then.

“I do not expect any change to the department’s commitment to service delivery and to putting the customer at the centre — a commitment I know you all share.”

It reflects the abrupt and tight-lipped nature of Morrison’s decisions when it comes to APS reform, especially when considered alongside the impending release of the Thodey report.

At a press conference about the machinery of government bombshell, the PM said there would be “further changes still that we’ll announce once we complete the Thodey review response”.

“And we’re still waiting on some final advice on that. And I’ll make some further announcements about that next week,” he said.

The Community and Public Sector Union has called on the PM to release the final report, pointing out that Thodey’s interim report had signalled advice to reduce MoG changes, not encourage them.

CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said slashing departments and cutting jobs would not solve the service crisis.

“It is clear that the Prime Minister is out of ideas, first he borrowed Services Australia from the NSW Government, now super-departments. Moving buildings and merging departments does not fix the service crisis created by his own government,” she said.

“The community does not care about Canberra games, they care if their call to Centrelink get answered or if their Robodebt gets fixed; that their visa gets processed; that we meet our climate targets; and that our bio-security officers can stop threats at the border. This announcement today doesn’t fix any of the mess the Morrison government has made and doesn’t do anything about the ASL cap or budget restraints.”

A public service source reportedly told the Australian Financial Review the government plans to scrap the report’s original recommendations; yesterday the well-connected newspaper said Morrison had rejected Thodey’s supposedly “independent” report and asked for it to be redrafted with bolder recommendations.

Read more: Machinery of government changes: could there be a better way?

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